Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Steamer Virginia ~ 2 May 1900

Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Services for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1900:

Stranded during thick weather on Outer Diamond Shoal. A portion of the crew escaped to sea in the port longboat; 6 others perished by the swamping of their boat alongside the steamer, and the remaining 5 were rescued by the crews of Cape Hatteras and Creeds Hill stations as soon as the weather cleared enough for the wreck to be seen from the shore. (For detailed account see caption “Loss of Life.”)

Wreck of British Steamship Virginia

The fourth disaster of the year in the vicinity of Cape Hatteras, within the scope of the operations of the Life-Saving Service and attended by loss of life, was the wreck of the British steamship Virginia, which stranded and broke up at once on the Outer Diamond Shoals, Wednesday afternoon, May 2, 1900.
     The Virginia was a steel vessel of 2,314 tons burden, bound from Daiquiri, Cuba, to Baltimore, MD, with a cargo of iron ore, and was in charge of Captain Charles Samuels, of London, England. Her crew, all told, comprised 24 men, and there was also on board one stowaway.
     About 2 o’clock p.m. of the day of the wreck the captain, being aware that he was approaching the latitude of Cape Hatteras, caused the lead to be thrown, and finding no bottom at 50 fathoms changed his course to northwest by west and proceeded on his way. The wind was light from the northwest and the sea was rather rough, while the weather was hazy, resembling a fog, and consequently objects were not visible at any considerable distance. For three hours and a half after the lead was cast the steamer held her course, having neither seen nor heard anything to indicate danger, when suddenly the cry of “breakers ahead” came from the lookout on the bow. The wheel was instantly thrown hard a-port, and the ship promptly responded, soon having the broken water on her port beam, but a few moments later she grounded heavily.
     Captain Samuels had just returned to the deck from supper, and believing that the vessel had struck only “a lump,” he countermanded the order which had been given to reverse the engine and rang the bell “go ahead full speed.” The ship had not stopped when this signal was given, and just as the engines started ahead she took the bottom again, more severely than before, and from that moment she could not be moved from her bed in either direction. Her location at this time, as afterwards ascertained, was on the southeast point of the dreaded Outer Diamond Shoal, 9 nautical miles southeast by south from the Cape Hatteras Life-Saving Station and about the same distance east-southeast of the station at Creeds Hill. She immediately began to pound with great violence and to fill with water. The master knew pretty well where he was and, being aware of the slues and gullies between the shoals, feared that the steamer might slip into deep water and sink at once. Therefore he quickly ordered both anchors to be let go, and himself ran forward to superintend the operation, but before he could get back to the bridge he vessel broke in three pieces and sank to the rail, giving him barely time to leap for his life to the midship section. Without further ado he ordered the boats out and all hands to abandon ship. As the sequel proved, it would have been better otherwise, but the situation was alarming to the last degree and speedy action of some sort must have seemed imperative.
     The crew hastily attempted to launch the two starboard boats, but both were smashed to pieces—the large lifeboat in the water alongside, and the longboat at the davits. Then the men rushed to the port lifeboat, which was safely lowered away and manned by 15 persons, Second Mate Moore in charge. Mr. Moore states that it was his purpose to return to the ship and stand by the master, but that it was impossible to do so, and therefore he ordered the oarsmen to pull away straight out for the open sea. The port longboat was now put into the water with 7 men in it, but before it could be cleared from the ship’s side it was rolled over, and 6 of its occupants were quickly drowned. Mate Wyness, who was in charge, was hauled back on board the steamer by means of a bowline thrown to him by one of the four men who still remained on the wreck, but had intended to go in the boat.
     There were now 5 on board, and, as then seemed to them, in far worse plight than the boat’s crew who had pushed out aimlessly and unprovisioned into the ocean—hardly more fortunate than their shipmates who had already perished. The steamer’s hull was awash, and there was no better place of refuge than the main rigging, to which the survivors speedily betook themselves. All about them was the impenetrable haze or fog, while their eyes rested upon a most disheartening scene below. From the forecastle all the way to the stern the hull was submerged, except that the forecastle head stood 8 or 10 feet out of water. The vessel was broken into three pieces, and through the rents in its jagged sides the water hissed and foamed, and at intervals spouted upward in great volumes 15 or 20 feet high. Save the bit of the forecastle head, nothing showed above the sea but the two masts, the bridge and funnel, and a few feet of a flagstaff far aft. All this dreadful havoc had been wrought in little more than 30 minutes.
     The survivors now turned their thoughts to some means of making a signal of distress. Night was close at hand, and they knew that they could not be discovered from the shore before morning, even if the weather should clear up, unless they could burn some sort of a night signal. They were aware that there were inflammable materials away forward in the forecastle head, but the sea was so high that nobody could go to the place even if when there the materials should be accessible. All they could do was hold to their perilous places and almost despairingly hope that in some way relief might come, and thus they passed the tedious hours of the night. When morning broke they cast their eyes forward to the bridge, which was still above water, and believing that if they could reach it their safety would not be less, while they would have space to stretch their cramped limbs and move about, they determined to make the attempt. The plan devised was to rig a sort of boatswain’s hair on the mainstay by which they could slide down and lower themselves to the bridge—a contrivance similar to the  breeches buoy apparatus. This they succeeded in accomplishing with less difficulty than might be imagined, and all passed down without trouble except the captain, who was the last to make the venture, and was for some minutes suspended in mid-air by the fouling of the gear. Finally there proved to be no recourse but to cut the halyards, which was done, letting the “chair” slide down with great velocity some 35 or 40 feet. The captain was considerably bruised in making the passage, but all hands being at last where they could exercise themselves a bit, their spirits were somewhat revived.
     Although it was now broad daylight, they could perceive no signs of land, and therefore knew that unless the hazy condition of the atmosphere should pass away they could not be seen, and would be obliged to endure another night on board the wreck. The master still had it in his mind to make the first possibly feasible effort to reach the oil and turpentine stored in the forecastle head, and as the forenoon wore on and the tide fell he concluded that as favorable an opportunity as they should ever have had arrived. Therefore, at very great personal danger, he jumped from the bridge and swam forward with all his power, beset by a strong current and with sea continually breaking across the forewaist. However, he reached the goal, and encouraged by his success the chief mate followed. By the aid of a line thrown by the master he succeeded also, and together the two men explored the dark repository of the treasure upon which their lives seemed wholly to depend.
     Throughout the entire day the haze continued, but when night came on the two officers eagerly set fire to their signal. In the meantime, however, the tide had risen, as well as the wind and sea, so that only with the greatest difficulty could the blaze be kept up, being often entirely extinguished by the waves that broke over the wreck. Frequent heavy showers also conspired with the sea to thwart the purpose of the careworn men, but nevertheless they kept their pitiful signal burning at every possible favorable interval during the night. Altogether they had used up by the time day dawned 30 gallons of oil and turpentine, although much of it, priceless as it was to them, was wasted by the action of the ruthless sea.
     Two nights and one day had now passed without food, and under such a tension of excitement and apprehension as to seriously impair the resources of the strongest and bravest of men, and it was doubtful whether they could hold out much longer. But fortunately, although they did not know it, their forlorn signal had been seen by some of the crews of both life-saving stations, and also the Hatteras Station had responded with a red rocket, which, however, proved not to have been visible on the wreck. Indeed the light shown on the wreck was so dim at the stations that the keepers were by no means sure of its import. Lights are often seen in the vicinity of the shoals, borne sometimes upon vessels which, during the summer, often pass through the slues between the Inner and Outer Diamonds, and also upon fishing vessels which frequently anchor under the lee of shoals.
     Nevertheless keeper Etheridge was suspicious of trouble, and at daylight turned his telescope toward the point where the signal had been seen. The weather was still a little thick, but at 7 a.m. it lighted up, and the telescope then revealed the funnel and masts of the wreck. Etheridge then knew all. His many years’ experience told him well enough what his eyes could not see. He quickly ordered out the Monomoy surfboat, called up keeper Styron, of Creeds Hill Station, and requested him to start at once for the Outer Diamond, as the Hatteras crew were about to do. The boats of both stations got away at about the same time, and as soon as they cleared the beach made sail. The wind was now blowing a gale from the northward, and the sea was running high, but there was no faint heart among the life-savers, although they knew full well the peril of their undertaking. By 9 o’clock the 5 wretched men on the wreck made out the gleaming sails of the two surfboats, but they could scarcely believe their own eyes, for they had little confidence that any men would venture out to the Diamond Shoals in such weather as then prevailed. But there were the lifeboats—help was coming at last. For forty-two hours the poor fellows had endured hunger and thirst, and contemplated without sign of weakness almost certain death, but now that deliverance was at hand they gave way to tears—the brave man’s last tribute to joy as well as to sorrow.
     The Creeds Hill boat arrived first at a point withon about a quarter of a mile
     The fact that the shipwrecked men were not relieved for a period of 42 hours would seem, in view of the testimony as above narrated, to need n comment in the way of explanation. To have attempted such a feat during the second night, when the uncertain light was seen which raised a bare suspicion of a disaster, would have been, as one of the most competent witnesses declares, simply foolhardy, and without justification of the dangers involved. Until morning, when the telescope revealed the unmistakable evidences of a wreck, no time was lost that would have in any way hastened relief, and after the wreck was made out not a moment was wasted in reaching her and taking off the survivors. It is a clear case of extremely creditable work.
     Had the entire ship’s company remained on board none would have perished. Happily the 15 men who put to sea in the port lifeboat were sighted and picked up 24 hours after they went afloat by the steamer El Paso, bound from New York to New Orleans, where they were landed and properly cared for by the British consul. When taken on board the El Paso they had been without food or water for 24 hours, and were nearly worn out by constant bailing of the leaking boat and their arduous labor at the oars. The 6 men who perished were First Engineer T.S. Wally, Steward S. Peck, Seamen Cook and Olsen, and Fireman Hoolman and Wegan.
     The following letter was handed to the keeper of the Hatteras Station by Captain Samuels.


We, the survivors of the British steamship Virginia, wish to express our gratitude to the crews of the Cape Hatteras and Creeds Hill Life-Saving Stations for rescuing us under most dangerous circumstances to themselves. The vessel was nearly awash, being broken into three pieces, and her jagged sides made it dangerous for the boats to approach in such a heavy sea as was running at the time of our rescue. We were nearly exhausted, having been exposed for forty-two hours without subsistence, and can not thank the life-saving crews sufficiently for their bravery in boarding the vessel. Since our rescue we have been treated most kindly, and clothed. At the time of the casualty, 6 p.m. of the 2d instant, the state of the weather rendered it impossible for the ship to be sighted. On the 3d instant the haze that settled over the shoals rendered it equally impossible to sight the ship, as I have discovered since being ashore; the night being clear my distress signals, which gave a flame of fully 6 feet, was sighted at 9 p.m. On the 4th the ship was sighted at 7.30 a.m., and we on the wreck saw the lifeboats at 10.30 and were rescued at 11.30 a.m. CHARLES SAMUELS, Master ; THOS. A. WYNESS, First Officer ; ARTHUR SIMMONDS, Second Engineer ; GEO. MICTEBLER, Third Engineer ; MARTIN RASMUSIN, Seaman

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